What Do We Know About Improving Employment Outcomes For Individuals With Autism Spectrum Disorder?

This paper from Carolyn Dudley, David B, Nicholas and Jennifer D. Zwicker of the University of Calgary illustrates factors that contribute to successful employment outcomes for persons with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

Adults with ASD have some of the lowest employment outcomes in comparison to other adults with disabilities. Most adults with ASD are underemployed, receiving lower wages and working fewer hours. Low employment outcomes impact quality of life and often result in high economic costs. Most individuals with ASD begin life with major challenges. Many struggle to be fully independent, engage in social interactions, attend school, graduate or manage a job. With the growing number of children being diagnosed with ASD, the authors argue that this group represents an important policy challenge that will require further attention.

The paper reviews studies mainly from the UK and US to outline the complex factors that contribute or hinder successful employment for individuals with ASD. The authors find that employment success is predicted by a combination of these factors as ASD is a diverse condition that can affect successful employment in multiple ways. The study’s findings are divided into three major sections: the influence of unique characteristics of the individual, the impact of external supports on employment success and implications for policy

Individual characteristics

Individual characteristics combined with other factors may make it difficult for individuals with ASD to find and maintain employment. Examples include: cognitive ability, severity of the ASD condition, functional ability and independence, social skills, age, sex, ethnicity, self-determination motivation and unique abilities. Successful employment outcomes are most likely associated with a higher IQ, better functional ability and independence. Greater social skills where the work requires this, no unmanageable behaviors or unmanaged co-morbid conditions and higher levels of motivation plus self-determination will also determine success. The authors also find that:

  • Support can help with things like social skills and behavioral management;
  • IQ can be used as a screening tool for employment; and
  • Unique individual strengths contribute to successful employment.

Factors external to the individual

External factors affecting employment success are listed under the broad categories of the education system, work environment and family.

Work experience emerges as likely the most powerful contributor to employment success for young people with disabilities. This may operate along with other factors to predict future employment outcomes. Findings also show that supervisors and co-workers can be important factors in employment success, while the type of job and a disjointed work history or periods of unemployment may lead to poor outcomes.

The authors highlight several other important findings from their meta-analysis:

  • Post-secondary education may lead to better employment rates but the quality of employment may be low compared to the individual’s education level;
  • The transition period from education to employment is seen as critical for high school students with disabilities;
  • Supported employment can assist with positive employment outcomes;
  • Being employed in meaningful work has an influence on positive employment outcomes for individuals with ASD;
  • Family likely plays a critical role in employment success but research is lacking in this area.

Implications for policy

The authors suggest that opportunities for policy development do exist and they offer six key policy recommendations for supporting individuals with ASD. The policy recommendations focus on conducting further research on persons with ASD in the Canadian labour market, addressing the individual characteristics that limit success, improving treatment and access for mental health, increasing opportunities for work experience, incentivizing and supporting employers, and developing supports that acknowledge the essential role of family in employment success.


The paper gives practitioners and employers a sense of what being in the workforce for people with ASD is like. It gives some policy strategies to improve the current employment situation as well as enhance the quality of life and economic independence of those with ASD.